Sunday, October 21, 2012

"Ceremony" by Leslie Marmon Silko

"Ceremony" by Leslie Marmon Silko is one of my three favorite books of all time. The other two are "The Book of Salt" by Monique Truong and "Paradise" by Toni Morrison.

Looking at this list, I discern a pattern: I like dense, modernist prose that plays around with time structure and explores intersecting themes of race, gender, class and sexuality. I also like 20th century American women writers of color. I took a whole class on them in college.

I first read "Ceremony" in that 20th century American women writers of color course (we never could come up with a shorter title). One of my biggest regrets of college was that I sold all of my books at the end of every semester and have had to re-purchase my favorites as a grown-up, like "Ceremony." I love this book. Every time I read it, I fall in love with it all over again: the language, the characters, the blending of myth and fact, the triumph of good over evil.

"Ceremony" is about a Laguna Indian named Tayo, a World War II veteran and survivor of the Bataan Death March who returns to his reservation a broken shell of a man. He's dealing with a complex tangle of emotions relating to his experiences both in the war, where he witnessed wholescale slaughter and the death of his brother; and in the American Indian communities within and around his reservation, where he sees his friends and neighbors give in to apathy and despair.

"Ceremony" illuminates an individual grappling with a state of mind that might be best described as "cultural trauma." According to the authors of "Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity," "cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their identity in fundamental and irreversible ways." American Indians have endured a centuries-long physical, geographical, and political assault on their culture and way of life, and each individual in the community must face daily the repercussions of this assault. Tayo falls into despair and madness not just because of the war, but because the cultural framework which might have helped him heal has been systematically dismantled by historic oppression by the United States government. It's not an easy or comfortable topic to explore, but it is rewarding and necessary.

After a long stay in a mental hospital and a year or so of aimless drunken debauchery with the other veterans on the reservation, his family sends him to a medicine man in a last ditch effort to make him into a useful member of the tribe again. The medicine man and Tayo perform a ceremony. And here's where things get interesting. In the world of the Laguna Indians in this novel, "ceremony" refers not only to the traditional Scalp Ceremony that the medicine man and Tayo perform around a campfire one night; it also refers to Tayo's entire process of healing, which takes years, from the time he returns from the war to the very end of the novel. In this process, he discovers that his personal journey is simply part of a much larger ceremony that was set in motion generations before, which was begun in order to counter-act a massive, evil ceremony set in motion by witches at the dawn of time.

Furthermore, the book "Ceremony," the one I'm holding in my hand, is ITSELF part of this larger healing ceremony. The writing of "Ceremony" and the reading of "Ceremony" is part of the ceremony described in the book. Layers within layers, folks, that's what this book is about.

As I said, the book plays around with time structure. In Tayo's mind, all the events of his life and the life of the tribe are happening right now, so we jump around from his childhood days to his experiences in the war, from traditional Laguna folktales to the history of his own immediate family. It can be a bit of a challenge to follow, especially at the beginning of the book when we're still getting to know the character and his life, but everything necessary to know is mentioned or at least hinted at in the first 30 pages of the book, so if you can make it that far, you're golden.

When Tayo begins to heal and take an active part in the ceremony of his life, the time line of the book evens out and takes on a much more linear progression, which isn't always to its benefit. I actually start to get bored when Tayo hunts the spotted cattle on Mount Taylor. It's the longest the book has followed a single storyline happening at a single point in time up until now, and it feels a little dragged-out. I understand why it's written that way. Tayo's mental state is very clear when he is performing this part of the ceremony, much less muddled with memories and pain, so we get a very clear idea of what's happening at this important part of his life. But it just--keeps--going. It's a chunk of the book that I feel I have to slog through to get to the good stuff on the other side. Fortunately, the ending of the book is really dark and twisted, though still happy in a way, so I can read through the hunt knowing I've got something good waiting for me on the other side.

Final Grade: A.

1 comment:

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